Asus has a reputation for innovation in the convertible tablet market thanks to its Transformer range, which combines tablet and keyboard very successfully. The PadFone looks to do something similar for the combination of Android tablet and smartphone.
The original PadFone didn't make it to the UK, but the PadFone 2 is now avaialble here, and we're impressed with the concept. The execution leaves a little to be desired at times, but it's certainly an idea with potential.
The PadFone 2 is a symbiotic combination of tablet and smartphone: the phone slips into the back of the otherwise dumb tablet, which does, however, have its own battery.
Both components are nicely designed, with the phone the better of the two. The 10.1in. tablet has 'classic' looks with a black-bezelled screen and rounded edges. There's a power switch on the top edge, a MicroUSB slot on the bottom and volume rocker on the right. There's no microSD slot for storage expansion.
The back of the tablet has a smooth rubbery finish and a gaping hole in its centre, which is where the phone slots in and turns the dumb tablet/battery unit into a computer.
The tablet's screen is one of two big disappointments of the whole arrangement. Its resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels (149ppi) is a far cry from the leading edge (where pixel densities are around 300ppi), which means it lacks the pizazz we expect from an innovative product like this. Asus has included an 'outdoor mode' on the settings, though; this boosts the screen brightness to make it easier to view in bright sunshine.
The phone, by contrast, has a superb 4.7in. Super iPS+ screen with a resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels (312ppi). Colours are vivid and sharp and the design of the screen, almost flush against the chassis, makes it stand out rather than appear buried within the handset. The phone's 4.7in. display is plenty big enough for video watching, and there's really only one word to use to describe it — stunning.
The three Android buttons beneath the screen are invisible when not in use, and very brightly backlit white when you tap any of them. The pale grey Asus branding is subtle, and all these factors come together to make the phone's front look superb.
There's a metal strip round the edges of the handset which is narrower at the bottom than at the top — a nice touch. Into this are embedded a volume rocker and power switch on the right side, a MicroUSB slot on the bottom, and a headset jack and a MicroSIM caddy on the top.
The presence of a caddy for the SIM suggests that the backplate can't be removed, which is indeed the case.
The phone slips into its slot on the back of the tablet very easily. There's no hook or clasp — you just slide it into position. Ridges on the recess in the tablet section hold the phone in place, as do two small metal nubs flanking the MicroUSB port on the bottom (the latter also provides a power-charging passthrough to the tablet's charge slot).
The phone slots in with its screen facing inwards so that it's protected and you can use the 13-megapixel rear camera when the phone is docked; the headset jack is at the top, so this can be used while you're in tablet mode. To discourage you from inserting the phone the wrong way, it's very slightly wider at the top than the bottom; if it's upside down you need to push harder as it goes further into the slot, which is enough to make you stop.
The handset doesn't fit flush to the back of the tablet, but creates a noticeable bulge. Its central position means there's no negative effect on the weighting or balance of the tablet in the hand, nor does it interfere with comfortably holding the tablet in both hands. But when you're working on a desk the tablet can rock from side to side if you tap its outer edges with a little force. If you're thinking of using the PadFone 2 for on-screen typing and are a bit heavy handed, this could be an issue.
If you are wondering about the weight of holding a tablet and phone combined then the figures will be of interest. The phone weighs 135g, while the tablet is 514g. Combined that's 649g. By comparison, the 3G Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 weighs 583g and the 32GB 3G iPad weighs 662g.
We've noted that the tablet is nothing more than a screen and a battery. The tablet's battery can be used as a charger for the phone when you're away from mains power, and you can set it up to ensure the handset is charged first when it's docked. This effectively gives you a portable power unit that can be used to keep the handset topped up.
The phone, by contrast, is rammed with high-end specifications. It runs Android 4.1, and supports LTE (100Mbps down, 50Mbps up) and HSDPA+ (21Mbps down, 5.7Mbps up). The processor is a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro running at 1.5GHz. This CPU has an all-important fifth core that kicks in when handling undemanding tasks, to help conserve battery life. The processor is backed up with 2GB of RAM.
Wi-Fi (802.1a/b/g/n), Bluetooth (4.0), GPS (with A-GPS and GLONASS support), and Near Field Communications (NFC) are all built in. You can use all these features from the tablet, with calls taken via the speaker or Bluetooth on the tablet.
There is 32GB of internal storage. Fresh out of the box, our review sample reported just over 25GB free. As noted earlier, there's no MicroSD expansion on either phone or tablet. This amount of storage might be OK for a handset, but you may need more for tablet use. Asus does include 50GB of web storage for two years, and there are, of course, other cloud solutions such as Dropbox. However, limited internal storage might prove to be a key disadvantage of the PadFone 2.
The tablet's larger screen is well suited to viewing downloaded videos, and running resource-hungry apps (including games). A MicroSD card slot on either phone or tablet would allow you to add up to 64GB of storage — Asus could even have gone for broke and had slots on both units, catering for up to 128GB of storage. That would have been a very tempting proposition.
The tablet has a front-facing 1-megapixel camera, while the phone's front camera is a 1.2-megapixel unit. The phone also has a 13-megapixel rear camera, which can be used when the phone is docked — although oddly it's limited to 5.5 megapixels in that instance.
Asus allows you to configure the screens of the tablet and phone independently, so you can setup app shortcuts and widgets on each to your liking. Some apps will keep running when you undock the phone from the tablet, although this is far from universal. We didn't find it a problem though. Generally we wanted to work in either tablet or phone mode, and didn't feel the need to transition specific running apps between the two units.
There's a good range of software in addition to the Android staples. This includes a file manager, the Kindle app and Polaris Office — and of course you've got the whole Play store available too.
Asus uses a non-standard MicroUSB connector design, and neither the phone nor the tablet was supplied with the requisite adapter cable. We had to resort to a standard-shaped connector, which kept falling out of the slots on both devices. That could be a serious long-term pain, and you could have problems if you want to charge both devices at the same time. Still, battery life is good: the phone lasts a day on its own, and the tablet is always available to provide a power boost.
Asus has come up with a neat idea with the PadFone 2. It's also attractively priced — you'll struggle to find a comparable handset/tablet combination with the specifications on offer here, and the idea of only needing to install apps once to use across both devices is appealing. Then there's the added benefit of dual batteries with sophisticated charging settings.
There are two big disappointments, though: the quality of the tablet screen and the lack of storage expansion. We're also unclear why Asus has chosen to use a slightly tweaked Micro-USB connector.